HBO’s “Succession” is a tricky show to classify, mostly because it’s two in one.
There’s a baroque, caustic satirizing of media and wealth present in its portrait of the billionaire Roy clan, a nest of vipers whose stings take the form of invective so hilariously colorful you rewind to hear it twice.
But, ahead of its season two finale Sunday at 9 p.m., “Succession” is also never more clearly a drama of Shakespearean import, the Roy children yellowing as they war for control of the media conglomerate ruled by mercurial patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox).
Integral to both sides of “Succession” is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) — Logan’s number one boy, the annihilation of whose soul has unfolded in excruciating slow-motion this season. After his misadventures in the English countryside leave a cater-waiter dead, Kendall’s a broken shell of a man; whether snorting rails of cocaine or plowing through a horrifying tribute rap to his unloving father (“L to the OG!”), the guy’s always screaming on the inside.
Summoning such deep psychic pain is no easy feat, but the Boston-born Strong’s done so with aplomb. Reached by phone, the 40-year-old actor is soft-spoken, polite, and intimidatingly well-read. Across an hourlong conversation, he quotes Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and the American poet John Berryman despite discussing all three with the same unfeigned passion he does “Star Wars,” which dispels any air of pretentiousness.
Born in Jamaica Plain, Strong moved to Sudbury, an affluent suburb, when he was 10. “I was really a scrappy street urchin, wearing a Red Sox jersey and gold chains, with a buzz cut,” he recalls. “I think moving to Sudbury was the first time I’d seen a Mercedes-Benz.”
In “chameleoning,” as he calls it, Strong adapted his personality to the area, a survival tactic he nevertheless enjoyed enough to replicate for local theater groups. In high school, two English teachers (who also directed Strong in plays) took his class to London, where sleeping outside the National Theatre to see Ian Holm in “King Lear” changed his life. Strong left the suburbs to attend Yale, but he calls Sudbury “foundational” to him, personally and creatively. “It exists like Moscow does in [Chekhov’s] ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ in my mind,” he quips.
Ahead of the season two finale, Strong discussed Kendall’s journey, how his early brushes with privilege prepared him to play a Roy, and (of course) that indescribable rap.
Q. As Kendall, you exist and suffer in this bubble of extreme privilege. Have you encountered that kind of wealth in your own life?
A. I experienced that in Sudbury, at Yale, when I was a teenager. I’d always been an actor in plays but wanted to work in movies, so I would spend my breaks and summers either trying to work on film sets or out in LA at studios and production companies, close to it all. That gave me a keyhole into the Machiavellian, competitive power vacuum of that world, that bubble, in Hollywood.
Q. When you first met with [series creator] Jesse Armstrong, did you approach the show with that Machiavellian frame?
A. When we first started, we were talking about trauma and the bubble of privilege, the sense in which the people existing within that bubble carry with them a toxic legacy. They’re all damaged by their inheritance, carry the weight of that legacy, are damaged by the weight of it. For Jesse and [executive producer] Adam [McKay], the show’s as much about trauma, damage, and the toxicity of what happens when a family with this much power is this dysfunctional, and contains this much hostility, sublimated aggression, and competitiveness. Those things, in an elemental sense, play out on a global scale.
Q. Kendall and Logan, vying for power over one another, have a particularly fraught dynamic.
A. Brian Cox talks about it as a Jacobean tragedy, and a morality play. And it is. It’s Shakespearean, it’s Greek — there’ve been a lot of comparisons, and one thing I love about the show is that it’s very hard to pin down tonally. It doesn’t really exist in any of these categories.
Jesse is an incredibly deft and agile writer, who can seamlessly interweave the show between drama and satire, pathos and levity, in a way like Chekhov. There was a line in one of Chekhov’s short stories: “People dine, just dine, while their happiness is made and their lives are smashed.” Jesse has this great ability to create these very quotidian scenes around a dinner table, or wherever, where there are hijinks going on, but there are also very deep, life-and-death stakes.
Q. Kendall goes through the wringer this season. The deadness in his eyes, the despair in his soul — how do you get to that place as an actor?
A. I have a belief that the only way for those things to come across is if you can fully inhabit them in yourself, embody them, in a real way — not a performative way. The discipline of being an actor is that you learn over the course of time to be porous enough to allow a piece of writing to draw these things out of you. You’re a vessel for it.
Before the season started, Jesse and I talked about the sense of [Kendall] being utterly broken and collapsed by the events that transpired at the end of season one. We had a conversation about carrying that weight. Certainly, the writing was like an oil derrick that bored down into me, and I knew there was no way to evade going through the difficulty that Kendall went through this year. But it was a really hard seven months for me, to be that shut-down and deadened.
Q. Whatever was left of Kendall’s soul has been shattered further these past few episodes. How much more is there for him to lose?
A. While there’s a lot in this show about the corporate drama on a plot level, Jesse, myself, Brian, and some of the other actors are very much engaged in this on the level of the soul of these characters. Kendall is frozen. It’s apt that we started this season in Iceland, where I was surrounded by ice and this ossified black lava-rock. There’s a layer that’s just petrified, and under that layer is such anguish. In the final episode script, Jesse had written a passage from this John Berryman poem, “Dream Song 29.” It goes: “There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart/ so heavy, if he had a hundred years/ more, weeping, sleepless, in all them time/ Henry could not make good.” If you read the rest of that poem, there’s this image of this grave Sienese face, ghastly, with open eyes. I think that’s what’s there this entire season, that I’m trying to not look at. The eyes of that face are what’s haunting him.
Q. I have to ask about “L to the OG.”
A. So, the rap. We were in Glasgow shooting, and we had a table-read of the next episode. It said, “Kendall does a rap that starts out with him saying, ‘Kick it, emcee.’ ” And there was one line written, you know, a corny rap lyric. I went over to Jesse and said, “We need to cut this. It’s just gonna be silly. It’s just going to seem like this white kid at a bar mitzvah, doing this stupid rap.” Jesse, who has really pitch-perfect instincts, said, “Let’s have [composer] Nicholas Britell look at it and write something, really write something. And then Jesse sent me this video — I probably shouldn’t talk about this, but why not? — of this oil heir, Mike Hess, who at his 30th birthday did a rap with Nelly onstage. I watched this video, and said, “You know, he’s pretty [expletive] good, and he’s committed,” and I thought, “OK, we have to do this.”
Q, Even in the series’ first scene, Kendall’s rapping to the Beastie Boys in the back of his town car.
A. He’s always loved hip-hop. And while this is not about the Murdochs and I’m not playing James Murdoch, James had his own record company out of Harvard; he was very involved in hip-hop. That’s something that definitely existed on some level in Jesse’s mind. I got really into it, kept it a surprise for everyone else. I told [episode director] Kevin Bray I didn’t want any of the other cast members to hear or see it until we shot the first take. Those cutaways are all their actual reactions, which are of course priceless; they’re all stunned. But I approached it in earnest, as Kendall would. It’s part of the high he’s on in that episode: that ebullient, fist-pumping energy. It’s the desperation of a drowning man, not waving but drowning. But Kendall thinks he’s waving.
Q. In last week’s episode, Kendall skillfully defended Waystar Royco — and Logan — during a Senate hearing. But Logan says at episode’s end it’s time for a “blood sacrifice” to appease shareholders. How worried should we be for Kendall?
A. We should be scared of what Logan will do. Psychologists discuss this idea of “vital illusions,” and one Kendall has is that his father loves, regardless of all the myriad ways in which his father shows him only cruelty. Kendall needs to believe in a different narrative, so he has a willed blindness to that cruelty. That allows him to believe. To take on the sins of the company, to protect my father — in a way, he has raised us not to be empowered, not to become the CEO as he says he has, but to take a bullet for him.
Q. What do you hope for, in terms of Kendall’s future?
A. I would like to see Kendall evolve and heal, to defeat his shadow. My job is to serve Jesse’s vision, and whatever that is will be much more complex and less rosy, less optimistic, than mine would be. “Succession” is a mountain I could climb for the rest of my life. I’m interested in the “Richard III” version of Kendall, where he could lose more of his humanity. Ultimately, we all want a story that is redemptive, but what’s most interesting is to have the furthest-possible distance to travel. Maybe it needs to go in the other direction first.